Recovered memories: evidence?


That people develop memories for events in their lives that never took place is a phenomenon well documented in the psychological literature. False memories can be produced through simple suggestion and real memories can become clustered with new data to alter them in some way. More so, to the person experiencing the false or changed memory, they  seem exactly like the real thing (Loftus, 1997 & 2003; Ofshe & Watters, 1994).

Despite the wealth of data demonstrating the characteristics of false memories, and that false memory syndrome is the most likely of suspects in explanation of ‘recovered memories’ pertaining to childhood trauma or abuse, the practice of psychotherapy to unearth repressed memories continues. Continued research of the veracity of repressed/recovered is needed, but ultimately difficult to investigate.

In 2007 Psychological Science published a research report entitled, “The Reality of Recovered Memories” (Geraerts, Schooler, Merckelbach, Jelicic, Hauer & Ambada, 2007); a truly compelling title. The aim of the study seemed directed at examining memories being recovered inside and outside of psychoanalysis. Participants were recruited for the study by way of newspaper advertisements seeking individuals with ‘continuous’ and ‘discontinuous’ memories of abuse, and were told the study pertained to memory and childhood sexual abuse.

The researchers distinguished continuous from discontinuous memories; continuous being memories of abuse that a person has maintained and discontinuous being those that were forgotten and “recovered”. They found that discontinuous memories of abuse recalled outside of therapy were more likely to be corroborated than memories recovered under the supervision of a psychotherapist.

For the most part, this study concluded that memories recovered in a therapeutic environment are less reliable in their veracity, but the means by which they measured validity are a bit questionable to begin with. Interviewers relied on corroboration of discontinuous memories to measure the likelihood that they were real;

Memories were characterized as corroborated if one or more of the following three criteria were met: (a) another individual reported learning about the abuse soon (i.e., within the next week) after it occurred, (b) another individual reported having also been abused by the alleged perpetrator, or (c) another individual reported having committed the abuse him- or herself.

Given the real possibility of false memories, then how can the corroboration of of such memories be offered as proof of their reliability? Given that recruitment sought individuals who had already recovered memories of abuse, along with their corroborators, is it not possible that all participants involved (including the corroborators) had false memories? Recall the case of Paul Ingram, a father of two daughters who recovered memories of being abused by him. Under the stress of the investigation, and the coercion of officers involved, Paul Ingram came to remember committing the abuse. This was all despite a complete and utter lack of physical evidence (Ofshe, 1989).

More so, by definition a discontinuous memory needs to have been forgotten and recovered. Even if the memories of abuse (by the victims and corroborators) are valid memories, how can the researchers verify that forgetting and recovery took place if it had been done so before the study began it’s investigation?

These methodological problems extend from one of the most basic principles of scientific research; a measure must be falsifiable in order to be testable. You simply cannot disprove the validity of the memories through corroboration, therefore you could not prove it. If I recall being abused as a child, and my younger brother remembers it differently, his memory does not prove mine false anymore than mine would disprove his recollection. More so, if he did recall it, even vividly, it would not prove the event happened, only that he and I both constructed a similar memory (either through actually experiencing it together, or creating a symbiotic false memory).

Corroboration is not a way in which to measure the validity of a memory; it is wholly unreliable. Truthfully, I’m uncertain as to how can it be measured.  One would think objective data is necessary, but how do you attain such objectivity with something as wholly subjective as human memory?

Carol Tavris (2007) tells of her own memory of her father reading to her from her favorite book, only to realize later in life that the book was published after his death. When confronted with such hard data as the impossibility of the memory being real, does this reduce the vibrancy of the memory, of how real it seems? If we are to accept that something can seem so real in our recollection, and yet be partially or even entirely invented, then what can we trust about our memories of events?

These problems in the measurement of memory are the reason in the 30 or so years of interest in the study of recovered and false memory syndromes, we are still grasping at proverbial straws. And while it is tempting to hold up the findings as compelling, because they ultimately demonstrate that recovered memories in therapy are not as highly corroborated as those recalled without psychoanalytic intervention, there are too many confounding factors to see a clear line of explanation.

Ultimately, the researchers did not demonstrate a ‘reality’ of recovered memories, just a difference in the nature of such memories as a potential function of how they came to be ‘recovered’.  Although, in no way do these data show that the memories were in fact ‘recovered’, because you cannot measure whether or not forgetting had taken place at any point in the interim. Recovered memories, by definition, need to have been forgotten entirely and then re-emerge. Without proof that the memory was forgotten, and then ‘recovered’, you are left with nothing more than plain, old traumatic memories.

Geraerts, E., Schooler, J., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., Hauer, B.,  & Ambada, Z. (2007) The reality of recovered memories, Psychological Science, 18(7) pp. 564-68

Loftus, E. (1997) Creating False Memories, Scientific American, 277(3) pp. 70-75

Loftus, E  (2003, March) Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, pp 231-34

Ofshe, R. & Watters, E. (1994) Making Monsters; False Memories, Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria, University of California Press

Ofshe, R. (1989) Ofshe Report on the Ingram case

Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2007) Mistakes were Made but not by me; why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts, Harcourt Books


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3 Responses to “Recovered memories: evidence?”

  1. Lisa Bauer Says:

    @Murphy8: I doubt this. False memory syndrome is well demonstrated and documented by psychological researchers; not individuals who have ever been accused of molestation. More so, false memories need not be planted by therapists. Anyone is a suggestible state could develop a false memory. It so happens that the therapeutic environment is a place in which individuals are often in a suggestible state, but it is not a necessary environment for false memories.

    I might suspect that there have been accused child abusers who might attempt to use the fact of false memory syndrome to create doubt about their guilt. But with any case of such abuse (and this should also address Rochelle’s statement about the Ingram case), physical evidence that support the accusations cannot be ignored. In the Ingram case, the specific details of the abuse would have left some physical evidence of their persons. For example, they claimed that the sexual abuse resulted in pregnancies that were later terminated. There would be evidence of this, plain and simple. That there wasn’t, while it might not automatically mean NO abuse had taken place, it at least suggests that elements of the accusations could not have taken place as they were described to authorities.

  2. Murphy8 Says:

    Could there by any truth to the hypothesis that “false memories planted by therapists” is just an idea dreamed up by people accused of molesting children?

  3. Rochelle Says:

    Wonderful, wonderful post! I think you’re right, Lisa, about the difficulties associated with demonstrating whether these memories are “true” or “false.” In creative nonfiction, writers often struggle with whether or not their recollection of an event is “true”–even when we strive to be as accurate as possible, we may remember different details that lead to a “false” idea of what actually occurred…Also I’m curious about the Paul Ingram case that you described–I’d argue that a “lack of physical evidence” wouldn’t necessarily vindicate him either. I will look into the link you posted, but I’d love it if you can post more about this curious case.

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